Daenerys riding her dragon by Zuzanna Jura

Why Did Daenerys Do That?

Theories revisited: On the BIGGEST obstacle to change.

Waiting for the final season of the Game of Thrones somehow gets in the way of doing my research. Last episode I re-watched was the one when Daenerys addresses slaves of Meereen hoping to persuade them to support her plan of abolishing slavery in the Slavers’ Bay. In order to do that, Daenerys not only delivers the speech, but also orders the broken slave collars from the slaves of Astapor and Yunkai to be flung over the city-walls. This serves as a message to the slaves inside the city. In the revolt that follows, many Masters are mobbed in the streets and the victorious slaves open the gates for Daenerys.

But why did Daenerys take the effort to exhibit the slave collars at all? By that time surely everybody knew very well of her setting free the slaves of the other two towns?

Make them feel

To make a valid distinction: the reasons for Daenerys taking extra effort in a described situation are different than in a scenario when you simply do not believe something. Example from the same series, when the Dead is imported from behind the wall for a demonstration in the capital. The Dead is brought to King’s Landing in a crate, where he is presented to Queen Cersei Lannister as a proof for the existence of the Army of the Dead. The guard cuts the Dead in half, thus showing to the assembled onlookers that these creatures can survive severe wounds. Jon then proves to Cersei and those loyal to her that the only way of destroying the Dead is by burning them or cutting them with dragonglass. Before that event nobody in the capital believed that the Dead were real. Needless to say, the way this discovery was presented also made all the viewers feel the emotion.

Discussing the “make them feel” principle, another example springs to my mind. This time it is from Breaking Bad, when Hank tries to persuade his nephew Walter Junior out of his imaginary marihuana addiction. Hank arranges for Walter to make acquaintance with Wendy, a local prostitute, who uses most of her money to fund her many addictions. It is Hank’s and Walter’s mother’s hope that the sheer view of Wendy will scare Walter off for good and heal him from the addiction. Talking to Walter Junior did not seem to work.

Speaking of Walters, I believe it is time to introduce one of the greatest researchers on the topic of willpower — Walter Mischel. In his most famous experiment on the delay of gratification — The Marshmallow Test — Mischel explained the phenomenon he was studying by using two distinctly different systems. The first, called cool cognitive system is specialized for complex spatiotemporal and episodic representation and thought (the “know” system). The second — hot emotional system — is specialized for quick emotional processing and responding based on trigger features (the “go” system).

The hot and the cool system

The kids participating in Mischel’s experiment could either follow the hot system and devour a marshmallow on the spot — or exercise willpower managed by the cool system to wait and be rewarded with yet another marshmallow. The choice between instant or delayed rewards sets two factions within the brain against each other. One side, the “hot” limbic system, which includes the emotionally reactive amygdala, focuses on the mouthwatering marshmallow and urges us to enjoy it now. The other side, the “cool” prefrontal cortex, which oversees planning and problem solving, reasons that greater pleasure is worth the wait.

In the above scenario, the cool system does the job. But in other cases, the hot system is needed to generate enough energy to change behavior. Like in the Daenerys’ case.

Daenerys’ trick can be described as that emotional arousal (the view of the slave collars) provides a diffuse state open to radically different cognitive interpretations that guide the behavior. That, under some circumstances, the emotional behavior may precede knowledge of the reason for it. Thus any stimulus may have two functions: informative-cognitive or motivating-arousing, whereas the latter is usually of a much greater impact (Metcalfe and Mischel, 1999). Daenerys’ speech would have had only informative-cognitive function — hence the collars’ idea, to arouse much-needed motivation among slaves to start the revolt.

To make matters even more intriguing, although most hot spots (hot system) have corresponding cool spots in the cool system, it is also possible for a hot spot to exist without a corresponding cool spot. This is especially common in young children before the cool system is fully developed, but can also be experienced in adulthood.

Indeed, much research in the last two decades supports the idea that people often operate in a state of ignorance. Wegner and colleagues (summarized in Wegner, 2003) have shown that people can be induced to think of their conscious choices as the causes of their own actions — when they are clearly not. For example, I may think that it is my conscious choice to eat the chocolate, while in reality it is an emotional trigger that prompts me to do that. These findings support the “ignorant conscious self” theme and furthermore suggest that the hot and cool systems operate largely independently of each other, although there can be cross-talk between them (Hofmann & Wilson, 2010).

According to John Bargh, the pioneer in this research, most mental activities happen automatically, without the need for conscious attention, control or direction from the self. Controlled processing is limited, but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. If the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically. It was Freud who explained how difficult it is for EGO to control unconscious impulses originated in ID and for that purpose he used the “rider and horse” metaphor.

The rider and the elephant

Jonahtan Haidt translated Mischel’s hot and cool system duality into the “elephant and rider” analogy in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt chose elephant instead of Freud’s horse as the much larger animal underlines the notion of difficulty in exercising control functions. And in my story, Daenerys is the rider on the dragon, which except for one instance is relatively easy to control. At least until the end of season seven.

Haidt explains that “Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all (…) Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made the rider possible, but it made the elephant much smarter, too.” (Haidt, 2006).

One of the rider’s main functions is to do the planning, to imagine alternatives that are not visually present, to weigh long-term benefits against present pleasures. Unfortunately, the controlled system, the rider, has relatively little power to influence behavior, as it evolved quite recently thanks to language and reasoning. On the other hand, the automatic system, the elephant, was shaped throughout a much longer period of time and its functioning is probably close to perfection. Also, it is much better equipped: it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that are responsible for the flight or fight system.

Summing up, we now know there are two minds: one that thinks and one that feels. The research by Joseph Le Doux reported by Goleman (1995), states “…the architecture of the brain gives the amygdala a privileged position as the emotional sentinel, able to hijack the brain”. Examples of famous “amygdala hijacks” only prove how powerful the elephant’s actions may be should it get threatened or scared. Some of us may recall Zidane’s head butt in 2006 World Cup Soccer finals. Zidane’s surprising and aggressive response demonstrated the main characteristics of the “amygdala hijack”: strong emotional reaction and sudden onset.

The metaphor of the rider trying to control the elephant was picked up by Chip and Dan Heath. Their book titled Switch: How to change things when change is hard is full of real-life examples describing how the elephant can be persuaded into action. My favorite is a story of Robyn Waters, who needed to convince Target’s merchants to introduce more colorful lines of clothing.

One option was to create a “business case” with charts and graphs that probably would not have been accepted since the merchants, being numbers-driven, would review the past few years’ sales and see that color hadn’t sold. Robyn Waters needed to get her merchants excited about color. She went to the candy store and brought huge bags full of bright-colored M&Ms to her internal meetings. She also brought in samples of Apple’s recently released iMac computers — in lime, strawberry, grape, and tangerine. By doing all that, Robyn Waters was attracting the elephant’s attention. She contradicted the traditional belief of how change happens (ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE) by turning on the hot system (SEE-FEEL-CHANGE).

Kotter and Cohen note that our analytical tools work best when “parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is not fuzzy” (Kotter and Cohen, 2002). But big change situations don’t look like that. In most cases, the parameters aren’t well understood, and the future is fuzzy. Because of the uncertainty that change brings, the elephant is reluctant to move, and analytical arguments will not overcome that reluctance (Chip and Dan Heath, 2010).

This changes when you are presented with evidence that makes you feel something, like the slave collars in Daenerys’ story. It might be a disturbing look at the problem, a hopeful glimpse of the solution, or a sobering reflection of your current habits. It’s something that hits you at the emotional level (Chip and Dan Heath, 2010).

What hit Walter Mischel was a view of a patient being transported for the radiation treatment. That patient was a nicotine addict and Mischel, being one himself, experienced a shocking reflection of his habit. This single event changed his life in that respect completely (Mischel, 2014), as he saw something on the radar screen that told him he was on a collision course. Something that could not be taken lightly or rationalized.

The hit can also be widespread, can pertain to the whole area of one’s functioning or the whole life as such. It may alter the way the person behaves, feels, thinks, and experiences meaning. “Something disrupts the way in which the person has been perceiving reality and making sense out of life. The experience is frequently accompanied by a great emotional release and a deep sense of relief. Then, with time, the person integrates and interprets the experience through language and symbols, and new patterns of thought and action emerge.” (Miller, C’de Baca, 2011)

Action plans, but for whom?

If people are not motivated to change, chances that they will listen attentively, let alone follow elaborate instructions, are very slim. Professor Prochaska, who is the lead developer of the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, arrived at a conclusion that approximately 80% of all people thinking about introducing a change in their lives is not prepared to do so. “The vast majority of people have an action model of behavior change. In other words, they think behavior change equals action.” (James Prochaska 2016) They are in the Precontemplation Stage and may not leave it for years. Even if they have a perfect plan, they are not really convinced that it is the right way to move forward. The elephant is not interested — there is nothing for him here, only labor in the unknown territory, without pleasure or satisfaction. Hence the elephant’s resistance.

Moreover, trying to persuade someone to do something may have a contrary effect. The simple truth is that we don’t like being told what to do and in such situations we tend to gain even more arguments to do the exactly opposite. In words of Blaise Pascal, “people are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others”.

What can be done and what cannot?

To begin with, one may find it useful to perform a reality check showing how aligned a chosen goal with one’s feelings is. Jutta Tobias in her course “Mindfulness at Work in 7 steps” performs a simple exercise where participant is asked merely to describe feelings emerging once a goal is articulated. If needed a few possible interventions may be considered in hope that strong enough emotions would be evoked.

During the motivational workshops I run, there is sometimes time and a willingness among the participants to do a few exercises that have the potential to increase the elephant’s motivation. In order to evoke positive emotions, participants are guided to generate mental simulations of the target scenario — the desired state of goal achievement. It should be underlined, however, that it is equally important to include also the part when participants are going through the realization process mentally.

In another technique, participants are invited to list as many benefits resulting from the achievement of their goals as they think of. If you cannot come up with one in 10 seconds, you pass the pencil to the next person and so the game rolls.

Yet another one consists in relating to the chosen goal by asking the same question a few times in a row: “What is the reason behind it? Why is that really important?” There are times when participants arrive at conclusions they were not aware of when they started. In one example, a person’s final outcome was “I want to move to Australia so that my wife fulfills her dream and in hope my children will be sick less often”. (In Poland where I live kids get sick quite often, compared to the Mediterranean countries or, apparently, Australia).

In organizations, this approach can be utilized by managers during discussions with employees. Managers may offer a rationale for why a given task is necessary. A job that is not inherently interesting can become more meaningful, and therefore more engaging, if it is a part of a larger purpose. The underlining condition would be that employees agree to the offered rationale or in ideal scenario own it, treat it as if they thought of it themselves.

This part of the discussion relates to the theme of intrinsic motivation. I will leave it here with a single remark that this kind of motivation results in increasing elephant’s interest in the project and is also connected to the other piece of advice given by Chip and Dan Heath (apart from “find the feeling”) that is “shrink the change”. The purpose here is to show that it is smaller steps, results of progressing in the chosen direction that are rewarding in itself without the need for introducing external ones.

In line with the approach described above, Locke and Latham (2002) suggest that one of the key components of building goal commitment is to increase goal importance at the higher point — for example, by company management. One of the ways to convince people that goal attainment is worthwhile would be to communicate an inspiring vision. An effective vision has the potential to work at the emotional level, and create excitement and energy in employees.

It is also possible that we do not contribute to a change taking place — at least, not consciously. It can happen that certain life experiences open a person to the possibility of “quantum change” as dubbed by William Miller.

“Profound loss is a theme that is evident in a number of these stories. Prolonged distress also recurs as a theme. Such experiences may open a channel of sensitivity or compassion that makes quantum change more accessible (…) They represent a kairos, a turning point in the life journey where major change simply must occur because the person is unable or unwilling to continue in his or her present course. It is a point of desperation, a breaking point where “something has to give” — and it does.”(Miller, C’de Baca, 2011)

In this article I summarized a few findings on the subject of motivation understood as emotional energy. Energy that can be only ignited and sustained by emotions that are strong enough. Without this critical condition even the most elaborate execution plans have slim chances of success or we can keep talking about a project for years without even starting it. The rider needs to find a solution to enthuse the elephant and keep him going in the set direction. And Daenerys needs to control her dragons, too. Will they help Daenerys to win the Iron Throne? That remains to be seen in the following weeks.

I coach on Coach.me and via zoom on www.wojciechjura.com. I cover Positive Productivity — my clients get more productive with respect to mindful well-being.